Category Archives: Olivia Newton-John

The Essentials: Olivia Newton-John – Totally Hot

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
The history of rock ’n’ pop music is awash with artists whose careers were propelled by the 45. Aside from best-of collections, their LPs often seemed to be afterthoughts. They generally included recent singles and b-sides, covers of well-known songs and, depending, show tunes. Many a Motown artist followed that basic formula, but it wasn’t unique to them. Many others did, too. There was a reason for that: The 45 was king.

But one need look only at the Beatles’ discography, from Please Please Me to Abbey Road, to see the evolution of the album within the rock world – they never released a single from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for example. (They also released songs only available on 45s, of course, so maybe they’re a bad example.) The gradual growth of the album as a cultural force can also be attributed to the rise of FM radio, where many freeform stations focused on album tracks; the record labels themselves; and economic and social forces larger than the the music industry.

Don’t get me wrong: the single was never deposed from its throne, though its power was muted for the longest time. A casual fan bought the 45 but not the LP, just as today many fans prefer downloading (or streaming) just the hit, while hardcore fans picked up both – especially when the b-side wasn’t included on the album. Or, if the song was from a pricey double-LP movie soundtrack that featured many other artists, one might prefer the single.

The last was the main reason why I picked up “You’re the One That I Want,” Olivia Newton-John’s smash Grease duet with John Travolta, in late June 1978. The album cost about as much as a month’s worth of my allowance! I was 12, soon to be 13, and had recently seen the movie – the first of many, many times that summer – and was instantly smitten with the blonde student from Australia. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” was always a high point of the film; it still is. Here’s a 1978 live performance of the song:

Another high point: the introduction of saucy Sandy at the film’s end. (No, it’s not a great movie, per se, but it’s great all the same. I’ve never not watched it and found myself wishing I hadn’t. And in the decades since that summer, it’s safe to say I’ve seen it a lot.)

Now, Olivia had been making music since the early 1970s but – given my age and other circumstances – I was unaware of her. True, like most moviegoers in the summer of 1975, I heard a snippet of “I Honestly Love You” in Jaws. But I was more focused on the shark than the soundtrack.

Grease, in other words, was my introduction to her. And Totally Hot, the LP she released in November of 1978, cemented my fandom. Just as, in Grease, sweet Sandy morphs into saucy Sandy, Olivia underwent a metamorphosis of her own that year, though I wasn’t aware of it: from adult contemporary to pop-rock.

Some folks reading this, I’m sure, are arching an eyebrow and/or snickering. At some point in time it became hip to dismiss “adult contemporary” music as manipulative musings aimed at the overly washed; pop as lightweight dross; and pop-rock as diluted pablum. One need only to flip through the history books – or the red and blue versions of the Rolling Stone Record Guide – to see what I mean.

But me, I’ve never cared about what others thought of my likes and dislikes. As evidenced by my blog, I enjoy many styles of music – from rock to pop to disco to country to R&B and more. Prog-rock, however, bores me to tears, and a lot of punk is just noise to my ears, but if someone enjoys either – hey, more power to them. (As John Lennon sang, and they may be the most profound lyrics he ever wrote, “whatever gets you through the night/it’s all right, it’s all right.”) Commercial music, such as ONJ’s, can light a life as much as any other.

Anyway, I’d argue that the lead single, “A Little More Love,” is the utter definition of pop-rock in its purest, best form. It possesses a catchy rhythm, cool guitar licks, and a seductive vocal.

(It also has a lyric I often sing to my cat: “It gets me nowhere to tell you no.”)

The second single, “Deeper Than the Night,” is equally as brilliant:

But two hit singles, both of which peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard charts, do not make a great album. What makes Totally Hot essential – to me, at least – are its other eight songs, which include the propulsive opening salvo of “Please Don’t Keep Me Waiting”…

…the inviting “Talk to Me”…

…and “Borrowed Time,” which – like “Talk to Me” – was written by ONJ…

…and, of course, the funky title track.

Some songs, such as the country-flavored “Dancin’ Round and Round” or Eric Carmen-penned “Boats Against the Current,” would’ve been at home on her more adult contemporary-styled albums, such as Making a Good Thing Better (1977), Don’t Stop Believin’ (1976) or Have You Never Been Mellow (1975), but work just as well here. Sweet and saucy aren’t mutually exclusive, as Grease made it seem.

I’ll close with this: That picture up top? That’s my original copy of Totally Hot, which I received for Christmas ’78. Despite the many albums lost and/or traded in through the years, most notably during the run-up of Diane and I moving in together in 1990, I never parted with it. And while I don’t usually play the LP – I bought the Japanese import CD years ago, and generally listen to my ALAC rip of it – I’m playing it now. At the end of a bad day, it lifts my spirits. There’s no better thing I can say about an album than that, I think.

The songs:

 

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Today’s Top 5: February 19, 1977 (via Weekly Top 40)

Forty years ago today, as I write, the first full month of the Carter presidency was almost over; and, all things considered, it had been rather boring. The big news of the day was the revelation that Jordan’s King Hussein had been on the CIA payroll for at least a decade; and, because Jimmy Carter vowed during his presidential campaign to be the first to shed light on such shenanigans, some saw his administration’s newly announced policy of not commenting on covert affairs as being somewhat hypocritical.

Beyond that, the scourge known as inflation had jumped half a percent point to 5.9 percent this month; and the unemployment rate was 7.6 percent, about the same as it had been the year before. Weather-wise, at least in the Philadelphia region, it was freakishly mild – in just a few days (the 23rd), we’d hit 70 degrees.

Probably the biggest news in my world, however, was that the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries had premiered on ABC on the last day of January.

There was plenty of good TV shows in those days – well, what I, at all of 11 years old, considered to be good, including Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley on Tuesdays; and The Donny & Marie Show on Fridays. For anyone who has never had the pleasure of that specific variety show, here’s the Feb. 11th, 1977 episode in its entirety:

Anyway, enough of the preamble. Here’s today’s Top 5: February 19, 1977 (via Weekly Top 40) – and they are, in fact, the Top 5 songs of the week.

1) Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – “Blinded by the Light.” Written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen on his 1973 debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, and released as his first single, this classic song was destined for general obscurity until Manfred Mann’s Earth Band released their cover version as a single. Not only did it chart, but it went to No. 1!

2) Eagles – “New Kid in Town.” Glenn Frey, Don Henley & Co. released their classic Hotel California LP in December 1976; and this, the first single from it, worked its way to the top of the charts for the week of Feb. 26th. This week, however, it was holding steady at No. 2.

3) Mary MacGregor – “Torn Between Two Lovers.” Falling from No. 1 to. 3 this week is this soft-rock ode to infidelity, which was co-written and co-produced by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary.

4) Barbra Streisand – “Evergreen (Love Theme From A Star Is Born).” Clocking in at No. 4 is this theme from A Star Is Born, which was co-written by Streisand and Paul Williams. It would top of the charts in two weeks’ time.

5) Kenny Nolan – “I Like Dreamin’.” Until just now, I’d never heard or heard of this song before. Nolan, it turns out, co-wrote such hits as “My Eyes Adored You” and “Lady Marmalade” before launching his solo career.

And a few bonuses:

6) Thelma Houston – “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” The Number 19 song this week is this fun disco-lite tune.

7) Wings – “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Released as a single on Feb. 4th, this live version of the classic Paul McCartney song checks in at No. 37 (on its way to No. 10). It was a single from the Wings Over America, a live set that, according to Wikipedia, set history by becoming the first triple-LP release by a group to hit No. 1 on the album charts.

8) Olivia Newton-John – “Sam.”

Today’s Top 5: September 20, 1980

We watched Ordinary People last night. It’s a film we’d both seen before, though not in decades. Diane first saw it in a movie theater not long after its Sept. 19, 1980, release and I first saw it on PRISM, a now-defunct regional premium cable channel that was popular in the Philly area at the time, about a year later. An understated and powerful movie, it won a bevy of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Redford, in his directorial debut) and Best Supporting Actor (Hutton).

ordinarypeopleFor those unfamiliar with it, the drama delves into the dynamics of a dysfunctional family following the death of eldest son Buck (Scott Doebler), who perished in a sailing accident that youngest son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) survived. As the story opens, Conrad has recently returned from a stay at a psychiatric hospital after a failed suicide attempt; he’s racked with survivor’s guilt. Mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore, in an Oscar-nominated performance) is emotionally distant, more concerned with appearance than addressing his (or her, for that matter) needs. Father Calvin (Donald Sutherland), on the other hand, just wants everyone to get along. As Roger Ebert put it in his review, he’s “one of those men who wants to do and feel the right things, in his own awkward way.” Enter psychiatrist Tyrone Berger (Judd Hirsch) and the down-to-earth Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), a girl who catches Conrad’s eye. Both, in their ways, help him overcome the guilt – one knowingly, the other not.

In other entertainment events from that September, the Dionne Warwick-hosted Solid Gold syndicated music series debuted on the 13th.

I have no memory of whether I watched it or not; likely not. If I wasn’t out at a movie – at the Hatboro Theater in downtown Hatboro or the Eric Theater in the Village Mall in Horsham – I was likely reading the Sunday newspaper while listening to the oldies on the radio, listening to music in my room and/or watching TV. (How’s that for narrowing it down?) I was 15, a high-school sophomore and serious music fanatic.

Among the album releases for the month: Kate Bush’s Never for Ever; David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps); the Doobie Brothers’ One Step Closer; Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz; Barbra Streisand’s Guilty; Utopia’s Deface the Music; Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July; and Molly Hatchet’s Beatin’ the Odds.

And, with that – onward to today’s Top 5: September 20, 1980, in which I cherry pick my favorite hits from the Weekly Top 40 for the week in question…

1) Diana Ross – “Upside Down.” For the third week in a row, Diana held the top spot with this infectious song. It, like the 1980 diana album as a whole, was written and produced by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, though the end result was not what they intended. Afraid that the original mix was too disco, which was quickly falling out if favor, Diana and engineer Russ Terrana gave the set a sleek, more pop-oriented makeover.

2) Irene Cara – “Fame.” Holding steady at No. 4 is this classic theme song. If you watched the above Solid Gold clip, you know that Irene sang (or lip-synced) it there; it’s such a great song, though, that I can’t help but share it again (And, yes, I know I’ve shared this same clip before – here, to be precise.)

3) Paul Simon – “Late in the Evening.” Clocking in at No. 7 is this classic from Paul Simon, which is one of my favorite songs by him.

4) Olivia Newton-John & Electric Light Orchestra – “Xanadu.” Just bubbling under the Top 10, at No. 12, is this, the title song to the movie musical, which was released the previous month. I saw the film at the aforementioned Eric Theater and, like most who did, didn’t find it a five-star affair. (An understatement, that.). The soundtrack, however, was darn good; I played it to death.

5) Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – “You’ll Accompany Me.” Here’s a classic song from Michigan’s rock ’n’ roll laureate. Against the Wind, the album that it’s from, was my Album of the Year for 1980; I still think it’s great.

And, for today, a few bonuses…

6) Christopher Cross – “Sailing.” Falling from No. 5 to 15 is this Grammy Award-winning song from Christopher Cross. I imagine that this song, from Cross’ debut, would be lumped into what’s now known as “yacht rock.” Whatever. At the time, I found it a pleasant diversion that I didn’t need to own – it was played fairly often on the radio, after all. Nowadays? I often play Rumer’s version from her 2014 B-Sides & Rarities collection.

7) Olivia Newton-John – “Magic.” This classic ONJ number held the top spot for four weeks in August before beginning its downward drift. This week, it fell from No. 13 to 27. Here she is on The Midnight Special promoting it…

8) Jackson Browne – “That Girl Could Sing.” Debuting on the charts this week, at No. 82, is this classic song from Hold Out, Browne’s only album to reach No. 1.